My name is Christina Taddei, I am the BASK lead trainer and have been raising and training service dogs since 2005.
When I give a new service dog candidate to a raiser, or when I get a new pup, there is a certain amount of anxiety—so much promise, so much need! What if I screw it up? What if I can’t do it right? Yes, I think that, even after years of doing this. Luckily, you don’t—can’t—think of that for very long, because puppies are a full time job and for the first week or so they’re all consuming. But before you know it, you’re in a routine and the little ball of fluff is going to classes, getting better and better at getting groomed and is getting the idea of potty training. Puppy Kindergarten class is about handing—getting your pup comfortable with lying in your lap and getting inspected for ticks, teeth brushed, grooming, ear cleaning and plucking, and nails clipped and ground. This is such an important skill for a dog who will need to be groomed for it’s entire lifetime—sometimes by an amateur, sometimes by a groomer. Puppy class is also about being social and learning to play with other dogs and people.
At about 16 weeks, your service dog candidate transitions from puppy kindergarten to obedience classes. This makes your life so much easier!! Once you’ve begun to gain your pup’s attention and keep it, you’ll be able to start taking him out in public more and more. The first “field trips” can be stressful for the handler, so in your raiser handbook we ask you to limit them to 10 or 15 minutes. Longer is not better—successful is better. Go to the starbucks drive thru, get your coffee and drink it outside. Done! Go through the grocery store without shopping. Done! Go into the post office to mail a letter. Done! Vet visits are fairly frequent for youngsters, so another great place to go, get a cookie, get weighed, and leave. Done! After a few of these you and your pup gain confidence and will be ready to move on to more challenging trips, or modifying these—go into Starbucks to get your coffee, do a little grocery shopping, etc. Stay within your suggested trips or ask your trainer if you’d like to do more.
We often trade puppies for up to a month at a time. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have a “nursery” raiser, who keeps the pup until they’re about 4 months old. This is to keep the pup from becoming too attached to it’s raiser and makes it easier for him to bond to the client. It also exposes the service dog candidate to more than one home environment, important because we usually have no idea where the pup will eventually live.
The most difficult thing for most people is responding to access challenges—someone who tells you that you cannot enter a public venue with your service dog in training. Under the law in Massachusetts, you can. Your trainer will coach you with answers and go with you if necessary. “He’s a service dog, and ok to be here” or “He’s a service dog, here’s the chapter and section of the law in MA”. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. The other difficult thing is responding to people who want to pet your dog while it’s working. The answer is always NO. “Sorry, he’s working, but thank you for asking” becomes a mantra. This is always the case UNLESS you’re looking for a particular demographic from your pup’s Life List to introduce your puppy to—elders, little kids, etc.
Service dog candidates are evaluated formally every 3 months to determine whether they should stay in program. They are also expected to pass the AKC STAR Puppy test, the AKC Canine Good Citizen test, as well as the AKC CGC-A, CGC-U and AKC ATT test before they’re ready to leave the raiser.
At about 6-to 9 months, your service dog candidate becomes a part of you, and taking him with you is easy. You begin to look for more and more challenging places to take him—Santa, the Easter Bunny, a hot air balloon festival! I have been known to pull over at a random carnival, street fair, or house fire to let my pup in training experience things that I haven’t gotten to on our “life list” yet.
Our pups generally get altered at about a year, and the bigger, deeper chested dogs also get gastropexied. It’s a big surgery, but recovery is easy—about 7 days of “out for bathroom only” and another 7 of no jumping/athletics, then back to normal duty. Basically, lots of crate time.
It’s at about this time when our pups are matched with a client who is waiting for them. Balance dogs are taught one group of tasks, PTSD dogs another. Your trainer will teach you how to train your service dog candidate to perform tasks for his handler. When the dogs are fully trained, they are introduced to their potential handlers and they enter training together. Yes, you are allowed to stay in contact with your pup’s new handler if the two of you wish to.